Sure it’s early and there is a lot of football to be played, but the race is shaping up to be the tightest in years.
Think of it like the draft at Talladega: Step out of line and you’re going to the back in a hurry. And make sure you avoid the Big One.
“With the way league is right now, you’ve just got to hang around and be in the hunt in late October,” Murray State coach Chris Hatcher said. “If you’re in the hunt, anything can happen.
“Each week if you win you kind of separate yourself from the rest of the pack a little bit more. Golly, there are five league games left and a lot can happen.”
Going into this week’s games, basically only two teams have been eliminated — Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay, neither of which have won a league game. As for the rest, one team is 2-0, five — including Jacksonville State — are 2-1 and another is 1-1.
Three of the games this week directly involve the contenders — including JSU at Eastern Illinois — which could leave as many as three teams with two losses and still not out of race.
The best-case scenario to keep it jumbled involves Southeast Missouri handing Tennessee State its first loss of the season. That would leave five one-loss teams and two teams with two.
“It’s going to be exciting for the writers and the fans,” Eastern Illinois coach Dino Babers said. “If you start to look ahead you won’t be there at the end.”
There’s a lot of that around the country right now. The Big Sky and Pioneer both have three teams 3-0 within their leagues. The Colonial and Missouri Valley have five teams 2-1 or better. The MEAC has four teams 2-0 or better. The Northeast has a 3-0, 2-0, 3-1 and two 2-1s. The Southern has a 3-0, two 3-1 and a 2-1. The Southland has six teams with one loss or fewer.
Last year, the OVC race finished in a three-way tie with two losses. In 2009 and 2010 the top five eligible teams for the championship were separated by two games. It looks like it could be even tighter this year.
“This is a closer-matched league than people think,” SEMO coach Tony Samuel said. “We all know about this league ... these last three or four years have been quite a ride. I wish we could get a whole lot of exposure.
“What we’re doing as a league is pretty special. If you want to get some exciting games you’ve got them. The unpredictability of it is what I like. You’ve got some teams that put up and awful lot of points, but they have to put up those points on every given Saturday to win. There are no guarantees.”
The wildcard in the mix is Tennessee State. The Tigers are the only undefeated team in OVC play — one of four 6-0 teams in the FCS — but because of their commitment to playing HBCU classic games they play only seven OVC games this season in an 11-game year.
The missing team this year is dynamic Eastern Illinois, which could have a huge bearing on the standings. With the unbalanced schedule, the overall winner will be determined by fewest losses.
“We happen to be undefeated; it’s becoming a story now,” TSU coach Rod Reed said. “We never know which team it’s going to be. It’s never really been a factor when we’re not winning. I guess all of a sudden you win a couple games it becomes a huge factor.
“It is what it is. I can’t control that; that’s something above me. We want to play the best. This is a tough conference. We can’t sit here and say well we’re not gonna play Eastern (Illinois) or SEMO or whoever. Any team can beat you on any given day. We don’t play Eastern Illinois. Who said it’s a deciding factor?”
The Tigers play four of their last five games on the road, including an Oct. 20 date at JSU. Murray State still has to play at Eastern Kentucky and JSU. EKU has EIU at home. UT Martin gets JSU and TSU at home.
Within the conference, Jax State finishes with road games at EIU and UT Martin and home games with Tennessee State and Murray. The Gamecocks (3-2, 2-1) close their regular season at Florida in game that, depending on their finish in the OVC, could impact their postseason hopes.
Perhaps the real deciding factor won’t be which teams don’t play but whose players. Almost every team in the league has faced some kind of injury adversity this season. JSU was missing five key pieces last Saturday. Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown, whose team was eliminated last week by JSU, was handed an injury report on Tuesday with 57 players on it.
“It looks like to me it’s who can stay the healthiest, stay together the longest and get to those last three games,” UT Martin coach Jason Simpson said. “There are three or four offenses that score all the points. If you lose a couple guys on defense, you’ll give up 70. If you lose a couple on offense, you can’t score enough to keep up with them. It’ll be interesting.”
In the end, it’s probably just best to take the Al Davis philosophy — Just Win Baby.
“The bottom line is if you win all your games, you’re going to be the conference champion,” Hatcher said. “When all’s said and done, take care of your own business and don’t worry about whats happening to everybody else.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.